Tag Archives: Simon Jenkins

Learning from the past to understand the present

I was struck by a story from my neck of the woods on the BBC News website today.

The Welsh Assembly’s Culture Committee has released a report into its review of history teaching in Wales; and among the recommendations is some clearer direction and guidance on the key historical events and topics in Welsh history that must be covered as part of the national curriculum here.

It’s only been fairly late in life that my own lack of history education has become really clear to me. I only did one year of formal history after the age of 14, completing an accelerated ‘O’ level (yes – I’m THAT old) in the UK’s social and economic history (effectively the story of the Industrial Revolution). Prior to that, the only thing that I remember from secondary school history lessons is some stuff about the Tudors. This has meant that my understanding of why things are as they are in the UK, British Isles and European continent has been severely underdeveloped. I am grateful that two books that I’ve had the pleasure of reading in the last twelve months have started to fill in the gaps for me. I have previously reviewed Fergal Keane’s excellent memoir on the history of the island of Ireland on this blog. And I mentioned earlier this month that I was currently reading Simon Jenkins’ A Short History of Europe from Pericles to Putin. I will write a fuller review of this one later in the month.

What I wanted to reflect on today though was the fact that it is only through reading these histories that I have come to a fuller understanding of the challenges that the UK now faces as it wrestles with conversion of the Brexit referendum result into something that can work in practice. Only those with no appreciation of the history of the island of Ireland, the political compromises inherent in the creation of the Republic of Ireland; and the social, political and emotional knots that had to be untangled in creating the Good Friday Agreement, can believe that anything approaching a border between Ireland and Great Britain could ever be acceptable.

Similarly, understanding that the European Union’s roots are firmly embedded in the series of diplomatic and commercial partnerships that emerged after 1945, is critical to an appreciation of why so many French and German politicians in particular find it so hard to understand the UK’s position. The EU as we know it today has been a gradual journey from an initial steel and coal cartel in western Europe, to a wider Economic Community and then the European Union as we have it now. Its origins are very much in a desire to ensure that there could never be another major conflict in Europe; and to provide some social democratic barrier to the emergence of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc in the late 1940s and into the 1950s.

It’s interesting to speculate whether part of the reason why a small majority of people voted in favour of Leave in 2016 is because most people’s knowledge of 20th Century UK history is focused on the World Wars and the causes of them, rather than on the 75 years since and the peace and prosperity that has been achieved through closer collaboration with our continental neighbours. Similarly, in a Welsh context, I am embarrassed to say that I had virtually know understanding of the resentment that was generated in mid and north Wales as a result of the flooding of Welsh communities to provide water to English Cities. Cofiwch Dryweryn as a movement and rallying point for Welsh independence was a wholly closed book to me as a child growing up in Cardiff.

So on balance, I find myself supportive of calls for a common core to history curriculums. A series of themes and topics that helps today’s children to better understand their local history, their place in the United Kingdom, and the reasons why the European Union emerged and is so fiercely defended on the continent, seems to me like a very good thing to be doing – irrespective of whether we end up Leaving or Staying.

A virtual meeting

Day 5 Challenge : meet somebody new and learn something about them.

This is quite a tricky one for somebody who leaves the house at 6.40am to drive to work, spends all day in the office, and then gets in at 6.30pm in the evening looking forward to something to eat and a bit of R&R time before bed. But then I remembered that this challenge is as much about the blogging as it is about the lived experience. Blogging is the ultimate virtual activity – so I have chosen to ‘meet’ somebody virtually. And no – I haven’t joined downloaded a dating app! Rather, having consulted a list of people linked to 4th November, I have gone back to the seventeenth century and have chosen to learn something more about Mary, the first British Princess Royal and the Princess of Orange, who was born on this day in 1631 in St. James’s Palace, London.

Mary was the eldest daughter of King Charles I and in line with acknowledged practice in Europe at that time, she was lined up for marriage in a way that was all about politics and diplomacy. Charles initially sought to arrange a marriage to her cousin, the first in line to the Spanish throne; and subsequently, she was connected to the Bohemian royal household. Ultimately however, at the age of 10 years old, she was married to William II of Orange, although it appears that their union was not consummated until several years’ later. William died in 1647 just days before the birth of the couple’s son Willem (later William III of Orange). Willem was brought up largely under the control of influence of his father’s mother and brother, and Mary herself struggled to be accepted in her adopted home in the Netherlands. Her loyalty to her brothers (the future King Charles II and the future James II) did not go down well with the Dutch public, and there were rumours of an affair between Mary and one Henry Jermyn, a member of James’ household. It was only with the restoration of the monarchy in England, and Charles accession to the throne, that Mary’s stock rose within the House of Orange. She returned to England in September 1660 but died just three months’ later, apparently of smallpox (the disease that had claimed her husband 13 years earlier).

I am indebted to that font of all knowledge (and saviour of secondary school pupils across the world) Wikipedia for the biographical information that features in this post.

I am also reading Simon Jenkins’ excellent historical primer, A Short History of Europe : From Pericles to Putin. It’s a fascinating chronology of the history of the political and geographical entity that we now recognise as Europe, but which was for much of its first two thousand years, wracked by internal division and warfare, and the constant threat of attack from the Ottomans in the east. I highly recommend it as an accessible and eminently readable introduction to intrigues, alliances, betrayals and deceptions that forged the nation states of modern Europe. Jenkins’ own mischievousness is revealed in the subtle references to the UK’s current wrestling with its future relationship with the EU, counterpointing the modern day turmoil to equally turbulent events throughout the continent’s history.